Youngner proud to be a part of history, still angered by Salk’s slight
During his 13-year career at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Jonas Salk surrounded himself with some of the best scientists in the country.
They became his inner circle, his trusted allies, and without their creativity and talent, it’s possible Salk’s polio vaccine endeavor would have failed.
Only one member of the team is still alive: Julius S. Youngner, a microbiologist who has spent 56 years working at Pitt.
“I was only going to stay for a short time, but I got too interested in polio and I never left,” Youngner said during an interview in his Oakland office.
A New York City native, Youngner came to Pittsburgh in 1949 after working on the Manhattan Project, the government’s clandestine program to develop an atomic bomb.
The Army assigned him to a top-secret unit in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to examine the toxicity of uranium salts. Younger also worked at the National Institutes of Health, where he first became interested in virus research.
His contributions to Salk’s vaccine were critical to its success.
The most prominent was a rapid color test he designed to measure the amount of poliovirus in living tissue culture. He also developed techniques for trypsinization — a method that used the enzyme trypsin to grow the virus in large quantities.
“(Youngner) is one of the seminal figures in contemporary virology and it’s been that way for more than 50 years,” said Dr. Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences at Pitt, who pushed for the honorary degree the university granted Younger in February. “His creativity and intellectual energy remain undiminished.”
At 84, Youngner is understated and soft-spoken. He is polite and smiles often, but his sharp blue eyes echo of the bitterness that has remained with him for five decades.
Youngner said he felt insulted and betrayed when Salk didn’t acknowledge his lab colleagues during his famous speech at the University of Michigan on April 12, 1955. That was the day the world learned the polio vaccine worked. Salk thanked everyone but his own team.
“Some of them were crying after we left,” Youngner said. “People really held it against him that he had grandstanded like that and really done the most un-collegial thing that you can imagine.”
Youngner was so demoralized by the oversight in Salk’s speech that their relationship was forever altered. The scientists only saw each other once in the 30 years after Salk left Pitt, and Youngner says he never received a rightful explanation from his colleague about the Ann Arbor speech.
“It was unbelievable what he did,” Youngner said.
Salk’s oldest son, Peter, said he feels badly his father did not acknowledge his team members. But he doubts his father would have snubbed them intentionally.
“I suspect that he really regretted it after the fact and that it was not his intention to slight, but to be brief,” said Dr. Peter Salk, 61, who lives in San Diego and has never spoken to Youngner about the incident.
At the same time, Salk said his father deserved to be recognized as head of the laboratory.
“Whatever anyone contributed to the project, he (my father) pulled it together,” Salk said. “It was a team effort, there’s no question about it, and yet in a way there’s not something that is so terribly inappropriate about the person who spearheaded this, in some way having an association with the outcome.”
In a book published this month by University of Texas at Austin historian David M. Oshinsky, “Polio: An American Story,” Youngner makes several serious allegations against Salk.
He accuses Salk of wrongly taking credit in a scientific paper for the color test.
“This was really a team effort, and it’s always been Salk, Salk, Salk, but there were a lot of other people involved,” Oshinsky said.
Youngner also provides an inflammatory account of the Cutter incident, in which a California vaccine maker generated a batch of the Salk vaccine that mistakenly contained live virus. It resulted in 200 polio cases, including 79 children. Eleven people died.
In Oshinsky’s book, Youngner said he visited the Cutter Laboratories factory in Berkeley prior to the incident and witnessed problems in the way the virus was being inactivated. Youngner said he conveyed his concerns to Salk.
“When the Cutter incidence began to unfold … I was immobilized,” Younger wrote in his unpublished memoir, according to Oshinsky. “I realized that Jonas probably had done nothing — but neither had I. My guilt at being taken in by him was oppressive, but what to doâ¢ Silence was my response.”
Peter Salk said he wasn’t aware of these events.
“Personally, I feel badly for there to be a taint on my father’s character,” said Peter Salk, noting his father was deeply troubled by the Cutter fiasco. “He was very upset by the human loss. This was something he knew did not need to happen.”
Youngner is not letting ill feelings get in the way of the 50th anniversary celebration.
At the Pitt honors convocation on Feb. 28, Youngner didn’t address the controversy.
“I consider myself blessed by good fortune to have played a part in the creation of this medical milestone,” he said.
Click on the link below to view a narrated slide show.
By the end of 1949, Jonas Salk had assembled a core group of scientists and assistants for the polio vaccine research project. They included:
Source: ‘Splendid Solution’ by Jeffrey Kluger, 2005.